Hundreds of people on board a migrant rescue boat, including pregnant women and children, have been stranded in the Mediterranean between Italy and Malta as both countries refuse to allow the vessel to dock.
Some 629 people were saved by SOS Mediterranean on Saturday and are stuck aboard the French NGO's ship Aquarius, which is currently between Malta and Sicily waiting for a secure port.
“We call on the government of Spain to urgently designate a safe port for the Aquarius and demonstrate that not all Mediterranean countries ignore human rights,” said a petition launched by Spain's immigration network on change.org.
Pedimos tu ayuda para que el Gobierno de #España designe de forma urgente un puerto seguro para la embarcación #Aquarius y demuestre que no todos los países del mediterráneo abandonan los #DDHH https://t.co/mwuzDIbMND— Red Inmigración (@redinmigracion) June 11, 2018
The migrants were rescued in six separate night-time operations in the central Mediterranean on Saturday. The French organisation said that 123 unaccompanied minors, 11 small children and seven pregnant women are among those brought on board.
Italy's spat with Malta began after its reported refusal to come to the aid of another rescue ship, Seefuchs, which was stranded with 126 migrants on board due to violent seas until it was allowed to dock at the Sicilian port of Pozzallo on Saturday.
Malta on Sunday reiterated its refusal to accept the Aquarius, ignoring calls from Rome.
Photo: Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP
Italy's hardline interior minister Matteo Salvini, in a joint statement with Danilo Toninelli, minister in charge of the Italian coastguard, insisted that Malta "cannot continue to look the other way when it comes to respecting precise international conventions on the protection of human life".
"That's why we ask the government in Valletta to take in the Aquarius in order to offer first aid to the migrants on board."
Malta's government replied saying Prime Minister Joseph Muscat had spoken to Italian premier Giuseppe Conte and underlined "that Malta is acting in full conformity with its international obligations".
"As such Malta will not take the said vessel in its ports."
EU rules mean migrants must apply for asylum in the European country where they first arrive, putting pressure on Italy and Greece, the entry points for hundreds of thousands of people fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East, Africa and Asia since 2015.
Spain's new Socialist government has yet to outline its policy on refugees but Margarita Robles, the new minister of defence told Ser: “The priority must be to save human lives.”
“In the face of human drama it is essential for the EU to act,” she said that within the EU Spain has “a need and obligation” to help refugees. “This has to be a commitment by the EU as a whole.”
Speaking of Italy's refusal to allow the refugees to disembark she added: “The situation with the Italian government is problematic.”
Spain's maritime rescue service said it has saved 231 migrants trying the cross the Mediterranean to reach Europe over the weekend.
The rescue service says its patrol craft intercepted six different boats carrying migrants that had left from African shores throughout Saturday.
Another boat found on Sunday was carrying four dead bodies along with 49 migrants.
The U.N. reports at least 785 migrants have died crossing the Med so far this year. Through the first five months of 2018, a total of 27,482 migrants reached European shores, with 7,614 of them arriving in Spain.